By Christie Jackson

USA Today recently reported that the number of passengers traveling on airplanes with service animals is increasing.  The article explores possible reasons for this increase.  Perhaps – innocently and legitimately – there are more individuals with disabilities flying the friendly skies with their service animals than ever before.  Or, as USA Today suspects, not all are legitimate service animals.  Ferreting out service animal fraud is an ongoing issue, which we have previously covered.

What could be motivating these air passengers’ fraud?  Well, money is always an issue.  According to the article, airlines charge as much as $549 for non-service animals, while there is no charge for service animals.  Or, consistent with the increasing trend of animals in strollers, purses, and just about everywhere their owners go, pet lovers just cannot bear the idea of leaving Fido in the cargo hold of the plane.

What law governs this?  The Air Carrier Access Act (ACA) governs the rights of passengers with disabilities traveling on planes.  The protections the ACA provides for individuals who have service or emotional support animals are broader than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Under the ACA, virtually any type of animal can be a service animal.  The ACA also protects emotional support animals for recognized psychiatric conditions with documentation from a licensed mental health professional.  The ACA requires that airlines allow these animals on planes with their owners and prohibits airlines from charging a fee for the animals.  In contrast, the ADA only provides protection for dogs and miniature horses that are actually trained to perform work or tasks for a person with a disability. Unlike airlines covered by the ACA, public accommodations covered by the ADA do not have to allow onto their premises emotional support animals that merely make their owners feel better by their presence–even if the owners have a recognized psychiatric condition.

Passengers traveling with service or emotional support animals should note, however, that some destinations such as Hawaii and the UK may have additional rules concerning animals entering those areas.

Regardless of whether the animals on planes are legitimate service or emotional support animals, expect to see more furry friends on your next flight.

Edited by Minh Vu and Kristina Launey